Beth Orton’s early work was marked by an attempt to reconcile her intimate, more traditional folk-troubadour songwriting style with her inclination toward unnerving electronic flourishes. Her latest effort, Kidsticks, swings the pendulum decidedly toward the electronic side of the spectrum, with a warm, welcoming, synth-driven sonic milieu that results in some of her most immediate pop songs. Despite the album’s clear focus, though, it ultimately feels under-developed—thinner and less rewarding than when Orton really digs into the rift between the two genres.
With a funky riff that imitates a talking computer, rhythmic percussion, and squeaky synth accents, “1973” invites the listener to bob along to its synth-pop groove. But the track’s three swift minutes fly by with no time for Orton to convey a sense of who she is, either lyrically or vocally. “I see a light/Ain’t it bright?/Keeps me up all night,” she sings on lead single “Moon,” which deftly weaves a cyclic pattern of vocals above a plucky bassline and staccato strings. Similar allusions—to light and dark, concise scenes of nature—are echoed throughout Kidsticks, with Orton discovering self-revelation in the natural world she observes. But songs like “Petals” and “Wave,” which rather obviously incorporates a steel drum, rarely cut deeper than being descriptive.
Kidsticks’s best moments emerge when its focus is on the tension between Orton’s delivery and her music, as strange as they sound in the context of such a sunny album. “Dawnstar” mixes serene synth washes and percussion that seems like it’s toppling over at the end of each measure, with Orton’s heartfelt lyrics reverberating through the mix. The intimacy of her vocals juxtaposed with the song’s eerie, almost aloof production creates an atmosphere of intrigue. The jittery percussion of “Flesh and Blood” and its unpredictable arrangement—bass, keys, and other spare instruments arriving and disappearing at will, conveying a sense of unsteadiness—transforms what could have been a trite love song into something compelling and vulnerable.
Notably, these are Kidsticks’s longest tracks. Most of the songs here are quick and fun, with bright hooks and buoyant keyboards, and the lyrics lack the consequence Orton has brought to the themes of love and loss in the past. Last week, when she debuted the music video for “1973,” Orton was criticized for spray-painting a pair of federally protected California plants in the clip. The automated cheeriness of Kidsticks—which is over in just 37 minutes, emphasizing its feeling of triviality—takes a similar liberty with Orton’s sound, applying broad swaths of color to the detriment of what lies beneath.